Critical Concepts

Explication

vs. Analysis

"To explicate" something is, in the most general sense of the term, to spell out its implications.  Thus the noun "explication," in the corresponding sense, is, in the first instance, the process of spelling out the implications of something.  And derived from this, in turn, is the sense of "explication" that refers to the product of this process:  some account of what the implications of something are.  Explication, in other words, is a kind of explanation (note 1).  But usually the thing whose implications are being explicated is a text, or something that is being treated as a text.  Thus we say that a lawyer tries to persuade a judge that his opponent's explication of some previous decision is mistaken -- the implications of the previous case, for the case the judge must decide today, are different from what opposing counsel represents them to be.  Or we might note that theologians, historically, have disagreed on how to explicate this or that passage of the Bible.  But in ordinary usage we probably would say, of a doctor who manages to diagnose a patient's symptoms, that he has explained them, rather than that he has "explicated" them (though we could sensically stretch the term "explicate" to cover this if we wanted to and there was some special reason for doing so).

"Explication" in a literary critical sense often refers to nothing more than this:  spelling out the implications of the text -- this bit, or that bit, on whatever occasion may arise.  In this sense, any time one draws an inference from any explicit detail of the work, one is "doing explication."  From a gesture or remark, in some social context, one "sees" this or that motive at work.  From the phrasing of a narrator's or character's remarks, one understands that the speaker is being ironic.  From the realization that two characters (or two settings or whatever) stand in the relation of foil, or of equivalent ("double") to one another, one notices something unstated about the one on the basis of what has noticed (stated or unstated) about the other.  It may be that this interpretive activity is embedded in an essay whose overall organization is some form of logical hierarchy of claims; but whenever one is drawing out implications, one is doing explication in this broad, general sense.

But there is another sense of the term that has arisen in literary critical discourse, that is much more specific, and that takes into account the organization of the interpretive activity, or at least of its presentation.  In this more specific sense of the term, "explication" involves going through the explicit text, from beginning to end (as a whole, or within a section), and systematically spelling out what the given string of explicit details, or events, or episodes, or scenes, or stanzas, brings to mind to an appropriately engaged reader's mind.  When this is done, the resulting interpretation, the interpretive discourse (whether oral or written) will be organized chronologically rather than logically.  That is, the organization of an explication, considered as a particular type of critical discourse, is taken over from the work under discussion.  And if we are dealing with fiction, plays, films, and most poems, the order of explicit details, events, episodes, that constitutes them is typically going to be temporal.  The reason for this is that time is the mode of experience, and works of literature are generally designed, first and foremost, to convey some experience.  If we then undertake to unpack "on the fly" the unfolding of the implicit dimensions of that unfolding experience, the order of our own observations will be dictated by the order of the facts as presented in the work that is seeking to sponsor or convey that experience.

This is something that we do lots in class, though our doing of it is typically confined to a passage, rather than carried through over the entire text.  But it is not what will be asked for in most of the writing you will be called upon to do in our course.  Here, the job will be something that, for lack of a better term, we will call "analysis."  If the fiction writer's task (or the dramatist's or film-maker's or poet's) is to afford us some clarifiable, intelligible experience, our task (unless you are definitely told otherwise) will be to clarify some particular aspect of the significance of that experience.  The internal grammatical structure of these phrases is instructive.

In the first, the direct object of the verb is "experience," and the concepts "clarifiable" and "intelligible" are adjectives that modify (are subordinate to) that notion.

Writers select and arrange the details that, together, constitute the experience they want to convey in such a manner as to suggest what the significance of it is, or may be supposed to be.  But because they are interested in getting us vicariously to undergo that experience, the overall organizational framework within which these details will be presented will be chronological (even if interrupted by flashbacks, flashforwards, or commentary), because the mode of experience is temporal.  That is, what we call experience is something that by its very nature flows from moment to moment.

We might say that, here, the order of events is the dog, and the implications / inferences / ideas to which they logically give rise are the tail.  Except in very special circumstances (note 2), for a fiction writer to organize the text as an argument or exposition, rather than as a narrative, is to be at cross-purposes with himself.  Like a carpenter trying to drive nails with a saw, this would be to pick the wrong tool for the job.  Or (to return to the metaphor we began with):  it is to make the tail wag the dog.

In the second, the verbal concept "clarify" governs the direct object, "some particular aspect of the significance of that experience."  And within that phrase, in turn, the concept "experience" appears as part of the adjectival prepositional phrase that is subordinate to "significance."

Between "significance" and "experience" here, in other words, it is "significance" that is the dog, and "experience" that is the tail.  Now significance is constituted by a network of implications.  And if we want systematically to clarify some particular aspect of that significance, what will concern us will be some discernable hierarchy of implications that fall under that aspect.  And since the relationships that constitute a hierarchy of implications will be logical, the organizational strategy appropriate to clarifying them will be expository-argumentative rather than narrative.  Of course, we will constantly need to be referring to the explicit facts of the story, but when we do, we will be taking them up as evidence for our interpretive claims.  And it is the logical relationships among these interpretive inferences, and between them and the evidence for them -- not the original order of the events referred to as evidence for them -- that governs our moving from one to the other.  So:  if we are trying to clarify some particular aspect of the significance of a literary work, we will be working at cross-purposes with ourselves if we organize the body of our essay around the plot or story-sequence of the work we are analyzing.  Like a carpenter trying to cut a board with a claw hammer, we are taking up the wrong tool for the job.  If we are doing analysis, for us to adopt the organizational framework of the work we are analyzing is to let what is for us the tail wag what is for us the dog.

(For a rich page of links to various kinds of writing resources all over the Web, you might want to bookmark Jack Lynch's "Resources for Writers and Writing Instructors."  This is worth exploring someday when you have a little time on your hands.  [Hm.])

  • Finally, on our own site there is a checklist of criteria for evaluating exams, which applies both to out-of-class essays and to shorter essay-type answers on in-class exams.

Why our assignments call for analysis rather than explication.

In our assignments, you’ll want to move beyond the "parasitic narrative structure" characteristic of explication.  There is a powerful reason for this.

If you will insist on coming up with an appropriate expository/argumentative strategy, you will force yourself to discover insights that will elude you if you confine yourself to more passive description. This is because the organizational framework of an expository/argumentative essay will be based on logical and causal relationships implicit in the material under discussion, rather than a chronology taken over from the story. It is these logical and causal relationships that should govern the order in which you present the successive points that, together, make up your analysis as a whole. And it is these that show up in the transitions that you craft to point to the rationale for taking the turns that constitute the "trip" on which you are conducting the reader. But before you can build an edifice on the basis of such implicit logical and causal relationships, you have to arrive at a clear awareness of them yourself. In other words, going beyond retelling the story pushes you into a deeper understanding of the significance of the story

See also   Critical Concepts: Criticism and Critical Analysis

See also   An explication of a sample student essay in critical analysis


Notes

Note 1.  The etymology of "explicit" and "implicit" is worth noting.  In contemporary English, these convey abstract concepts.  Both come from Latin, where they originated in quite vivid concrete metaphors.  The root plic- means "bend" or "fold," and by extension "layer."  (In fact the English word fold like the modern German word Falten ("wrinkles") are Germanic cousins to this Latin morpheme.)  One or another of these notions is at work, under different spellings, in a number of words with which you are quite familiar:  complex, comply, complicit; ply wood, plexiglass; multiplication, multiply, multiple; duplex, double, duple, simple ("one-fold"); replication, reply; supplication, supply; etc..

Something that is implicit, then, is something "folded up inside" something (often, inside "itself").  Though present, it is not "out in plain view."  Something that is explicit is something that is "folded out," so that (for example) it is disclosed, visible, evident.  To explicate something (something already explicit) is to lay out what is folded up in (or layered behind) it.  We begin with what is already explicit, exposed to view, openly said and bring to that condition what, in the text, is conveyed only indirectly, by means of the explicit.  If we want a more specific concrete image still to remind us of all this, we can think of a bud on a stem as an example of something that is mostly "implicit":  only the outer leaf is "explicit."  When the bud blossoms, it performs a kind of "self-explication."  If we want to see what's inside before this comes about, our "explication" of it would have to take the form of dissection.   Return.

Note 2.  An example of a fiction that is organized as exposition is Stanislaw Lem's "De Impossibilitate Vitae and De Impossibilitate Prognoscendi," which is a pretended review of two (non-existent) philosophical treatises.  An example of a fiction that is organized as an argument is Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal," which is a pretended pamphlet putting forward a solution to a pressing social problem.  One approach open to us in analyzing these works as fiction is to treat them as dramatic monologues.  As it happens, this will turn out to be more profitable with "A Modest Proposal" than with Lem's "story."  One approach that promises to be worthwhile with Lem's piece is to consider it in the light of the author's own "review" of the collection of works (all of them reviews of non-existent books) within which it was published.  Another is to consider the implications of the theories "under review" for the sensicality of traditional narrative practices.   

In either case, though, the basic point about the difference between explication and analysis, as genres of discourse, remains valid.  If we explicate these, we follow the order of details (sentences, rhetorical gestures, arguments) in the work under discussion.  If we analyze them, we develop an expository-argumentative structure appropriate to the insights to which we are devoting our essay.  In this case, the organization of the original will be argumentative (in Swift's work) or expository (in Lem's), and the organization of an analysis of either will be argumentative or expository or both -- some hierarchy of claims.  But the heirarchy of claims that constitues the analysis will not be the same as the hierarchy of claims that constitutes the original.  Why?  Because the two essays (original and analysis of the original) will not be devoted to developing the same thesis.    Return.


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  This page last updated 26 October 2000.